Native Americans in the Canadian Expeditionary Force

Throughout the three books a number of references are made to men of the Canadian Expeditionary Force who were of Native American origin. The first reference is in ‘Arras North’ and relates to Private Thomas GODCHERE, MM, a sniper who served with the 102nd Battalion, Canadian Infantry. He is buried in Givenchy Road Canadian Cemetery, Neuville-Saint-Vaast.

It is estimated that around 3,500, and possibly as many as 4,000 Native Americans served with the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the Great War. Poor record keeping during the first year of the war is the main reason why no precise figure can be agreed upon. However, from November 1915 records began to improve after the agencies responsible for administering Native American affairs were instructed to make every effort to rectify matters, though it was not until February 1917 that a specific proforma – ‘Return of Indian Enlistment’ – was actually introduced. The document was intended not just as a statistical record, but also as a means of capturing background information, decorations, and other details of service. Roughly a third of the eligible male Native American population of Canada enlisted.

It is worth remembering at this point that during the 18th century struggle for control of Canada, Native American tribes had often sided with either the British or the French. The Mohawk tribe had fought with the British during the Seven Years’ War, as well as in other conflicts that followed, most notably under Chief Joseph Brant. His youngest son served as a captain with the North Confederate Indians in the 1812 war against the Americans, and between 1793 and 1814, ninety-six Military General Service Medals were awarded to Canadian Native Americans for their service to the Crown. Among the 400 Canadian boatmen who accompanied General Lord Garnet Wolseley’s expedition up the Nile to Khartoum in 1884 were fifty-six Mohawk Indians. It is said that it was they who had recommended the use of boats built to a similar design as their whaling boats back home. One Mohawk put it very succinctly: “We came over with the United Empire Loyalists from the United States. Our treaties were with the Crown, so when the Crown calls, we go.” In other words, even before the Great War, there was already a strong tradition when it came to service to Crown and Empire, at least among certain sections of the native population. Incidentally, Lieutenant Cameron Donald Brant, the great-great grandson of Chief Joseph Brant, is commemorated on the Menin Gate at Ypres. He was killed in action on the 24th April 1915 serving with the 4th Battalion, Canadian Infantry.

As regards the rest of the Native American tribes in Canada, there were a number of other reasons for enlisting during the Great War. Life on the reserves was often very tedious and many felt disconnected from the kind of lives their ancestors had led. Life offered little or no opportunity to follow the warrior ethic that had been at the heart of their grandfather’s lives. By contrast, the Great War offered a unique chance to tread that path. A common sentiment was expressed by Mike Mountain Horse, a member of the Blackfoot tribe: “The war proved that the fighting spirit of my tribe was not squelched through reservation life. When duty called, we were there, and when we were called to fight for the cause of civilization, our people showed all the bravery of our warriors of old.” Although many Native Americans had begun to adapt well to the modern world, the old beliefs and traditions often continued to co-exist with the new, including the power of dreams and a deep connection to the spirit world inhabited by their ancestors. There are quite a number of anecdotes where men claimed to have been motivated to enlist after experiencing visions and contact with their ancestors.

In 1914 the Canadian government had been reluctant to encourage the enlistment of Native Americans, although it reversed that view the following year. After Canadian losses in 1916, and given that there were already Native Americans serving overseas with the Canadian Expeditionary Force, the government openly gave its blessing to recruitment. After years trying to suppress the warrior ethic, the Canadian government now decided to use it, and even to promote it.

The notion of having all Native American units within the Canadian Expeditionary Force was never a realistic prospect, nor was it deemed desirable. For one thing, the pool of men available was insufficient should it become necessary to replenish heavy losses and, of course, there were tribal differences that still existed. However, an even greater factor was the on-going desire to promote closer social integration between Native Americans and the population as a whole. A notable exception was the 107th Battalion. When it went overseas as a pioneer battalion it had around 500 Native Americans serving with it and its commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Glenlyon Campbell, DSO, who was born at Fort Pelly in Saskatchewan, spoke several Native American languages. He died on the 20th October 1917, aged 54, from complications resulting from wounds and is buried at Étaples Military Cemetery. The CWGC register shows his first name as ‘Glen Lyon’.

Like Private Thomas Godchere, many of the Native Americans who served already had particular skills that were much needed on the Western Front. Back home in Canada, a number of them had hunted game from an early age and were extremely proficient at stalking and shooting, skills which in France and Belgium were easily converted into scouting and sniping roles. Lance-Corporal Henry Louis Norwest, MM & Bar, 50th Battalion, who was of Metis Cree origin, was the most successful Canadian sniper of the war with a total of 115 confirmed kills. He was eventually killed by an enemy sniper on the 18th August 1918 near Fouquescourt and is now buried in Warvillers Churchyard Extension, south-east of Amiens.

Although Norwest and his story are now well known, the story of Corporal Mike Mountain Horse is recounted less often. His brother, Albert, had served at the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915 where he was gassed. He recovered sufficiently and remained with his unit, but he was again gassed, this time resulting in his repatriation to Canada where he died on the 19th November 1915, the day after arriving at Quebec, from complications connected to his respiratory system. His brothers, Mike and Joseph, enlisted in 1916. All three brothers came from the Blood Reserve in Alberta.

Joseph Mountain Horse was wounded in autumn 1916, and again near Passchendaele twelve months later. He was wounded for a third time in 1918 near Cambrai. His brother, Mike, who served with distinction in the 50th Battalion, Canadian Infantry, was himself wounded twice. Before the war Mike had worked as a scout and an interpreter with the North-West Mounted Police. After arriving on the Western Front, his skills as a scout were quickly recognized and he was allowed to gather round him some of his fellow tribesmen from within the battalion, forming them into what became known as the ‘Mountain Horse Gang’.

Corporal Mike Mountain Horse was one of those Native Americans whose sense of tradition had remained extremely keen. During the fighting near Amiens in August 1918, having captured a German battery, he daubed the guns with Blackfoot victory signs before moving on with his men. When he returned to Canada after the war he made a record of his gang’s exploits on cowhide. This very traditional way of preserving tribal history consists of twelve tableaux depicting Mike and his men carrying out various operations against the enemy, including an occasion when he himself confronted three of the enemy in hand-to-hand combat, killing two with his war knife. It is a fascinating document, though the act of recording war exploits on the inside of tipis, etc. had long been common practice. The story of Mike Mountain Horse illustrates perfectly the extent to which old traditions and beliefs often influenced attitudes and behaviour on the modern battlefield.

A final thought on this subject concerns the grandson of the iconic Sioux leader, Chief Sitting Bull. Private Joseph Standing Buffalo, who died of wounds on the 29th September 1918 while serving with the 78th Battalion, Canadian Infantry, is now buried at Bucquoy Road Cemetery, Ficheux. It is amazing to think how life and warfare had changed in the space of two generations. Joe’s grandfather could never have envisaged the course that warfare would take in 1914-1918, let alone the scale of it, any more than his grandson could really hope to recapture the old life of the Plains Indian, regardless of the opportunities offered by the Great War. For all Native Americans, life had changed forever within a very short space of time.